There is no single view among the prophets concerning the Jerusalem temple, its importance, and the rituals practiced there. Because the Hebrew Bible is a collection from many time periods and places, different prophets have different attitudes toward the temple and cultic rites.
Prophetic religion is commonly thought to oppose temple worship and to insist that proper ethical behavior alone is sufficient for God, who does not demand any sort of ritual behavior. Prophetic religion, in this view, assumes that “right” (ethical action) trumps “rite” (worship).
What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of goats. (
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow. (
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream. (
The conclusion of
what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God? (
It is difficult to know exactly how exaggerated these speeches are—are they saying that sacrifice and prayer are useless, or are they saying that they are useless unless accompanied by proper ethical behavior?
Temples, sacrifice, public assemblies, and other ritual acts were a fundamental part of ancient Near Eastern worship, making it hard to imagine that any peoples at that time imagined religion that did not involve rituals. Indeed, in the oft-cited passage above from Isaiah, that prophet tells the people to “wash themselves”—a ritual activity. Thus, the message of such prophecies was likely that temple worship was not automatically effective and that ritual practice must be accompanied by ethical behavior. Prophecies such as these (see also
Although such rhetorical, anti-temple, anti-cult prophecies are found in the Hebrew Bible, they are relatively few in number and are counterbalanced by many texts, including some in prophetic literature, that emphasize the importance of the temple and temple service. The clearest example of this pro-temple attitude in the prophets is found in